12/28/2005 1:00AM

This year's three horses to remember


PHILADELPHIA - I put my Eclipse Award ballot aside for several weeks until filling it out in the final days before it was due. It wasn't because there was much indecision. This was clear-cut, for the most part. I just sort of wanted to savor the season.

I wanted to think about the Preakness some more and wonder if it really happened, ask myself if Afleet Alex really was of this planet. I thought back to the Whitney, when Commentator got loose and Saint Liam tried so heroically to run him down. I wanted to remember Lost in the Fog's tour of America.

There simply are not enough great moments to get horse racing back into the mainstream of American sports. The great moments, however, are so memorable that you really have no choice but to revel in them.

It is those moments that keep us coming back. It is Afleet Alex flying through that final quarter mile at the Belmont Stakes. It is Saint Liam, overcoming that outside post and getting another classic ride from Jerry Bailey, winning the Classic the way really good horses are supposed to win the most important race of the year. It is Lost in the Fog getting cooked in the BC Sprint's hot pace, proving again that nothing is forever.

Horse of the Year came down to Afleet Alex or Saint Liam. Both camps have legitimate arguments. If Alex doesn't get hurt, it could have been settled on the track. But he did and, once again, the race we all want to see is left to our imaginations.

Frankly, I don't really know which horse wins if both are in top form. Beyer-wise and style-wise, there really is little separating them.

So the question is which horse accomplished more? Do four Grade 1 wins - the Donn, Stephen Foster, Woodward, and BC Classic - in addition to that neck loss in the Woodward trump winning the Arkansas Derby, Preakness, Belmont and running third in the Kentucky Derby?

I think it does, but not by a lot. I do think Saint Liam is going to win the vote. Afleet Alex did enough to win the title in many years. But not this year, when Saint Liam finished a terrific campaign with a win in the strongest field assembled in any race all year. Alex will get the 3-year-old championship he richly deserves.

I heard Alex's trainer Tim Ritchey bring up the Flower Alley argument, but that argument has holes. Alex faced Flower Alley twice and beat him soundly both times, by a total of 14 1/2 lengths. Saint Liam beat Flower Alley by only a length in the Classic.

The argument's flaw is that Flower Alley got 95 and 89 Beyers in his losses to Alex. Flower Alley was still learning in the spring. By the fall, he was a different horse, having won the Jim Dandy and Travers in the summer with Beyers of 112 and 110, respectively. Flower Alley got a 110 when second in the Classic. To compare Flower Alley in the spring to Flower Alley in the fall is like comparing a freshman football player to a senior.

I know there has been controversy about Lost in the Fog. I really never understood it, but the first amendment is there for a reason. Even if you thought Fog should not be named top sprinter, what other horse would you vote for?

Taste of Paradise won the Vosburgh. He also lost his other seven races, including a hard-luck second in the Sprint. Battle Won lost 6 of 7. Silver Train won the BC Sprint, but lost 4 of 7 and won exactly one sprint stakes all year. Saratoga County won all three of his starts, including the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. His other two wins were in minor graded stakes at Laurel and Gulfstream. Sadly, the colt never raced after March 26 in Dubai and died later in the year.

Lost in the Fog, by contrast, won eight straight starts at seven different tracks and earned three Beyers of 110 or better. Does one bad performance outweigh all those victories?

In basketball, I have never particularly been a big fan of the "who did you play" theory. I subscribe to the "how do you play" camp. It is slightly different in horse racing, but not so much different that so many brilliant performances by Lost in the Fog don't count because of the opposition.

Voting for Lost in the Fog as sprint champion was easy. When you win every race from late January to early October, that is some year.

When you think of 2005, the three horses you will remember are Saint Liam, Afleet Alex, and Lost in the Fog. And for all the right reasons.